It is ironic that a priest who became so associated with Galveston and Texas was a Yankee! James Martin Kirwin was born in Circleville, Ohio on July 1, 1872. Kirwin was ordained to the priesthood on June 19, 1895. Incardinated in the Diocese of Galveston, Texas, while in the seminary he attended, Father Kirwin was sent to the University of America in Washington, DC by the Bishop of Galveston, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology. His ability being recognized early, Father Irwin was made rector of Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston in 1896.
Throughout his priesthood Father Kirwin was always a whirlwind of activity, and he quickly became noticed for the heroism with which he attended the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1897. During the Spanish-American War he helped raise the First United States Volunteer Infantry and served as its chaplain with the rank of captain. Although the regiment never served over seas, the fate of most of the American units raised for the Spanish-American War, Father Kirwin’s service began a life long association for him with the Texas National Guard and the United States Army.
Father Kirwin rose to national prominence after the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst national disaster in US history which killed approximately 8,000 people. He helped found a committee of public safety which restored law and order to the city, he drafted the martial law plan, helped with the burial of the dead, and organized and served on the central relief committee which aided victims of the hurricane. Together with his good friend Rabbi Henry Cohen, he spearheaded the efforts over the next few years to rebuild Galveston, including the building of a seawall for the city, the cornerstone of which he blessed in 1902 and saw through to completion in 1905.
In 1901 he permanently injured his eyes while rescuing people in a great fire that swept through Galveston. He then led efforts to rebuild the Galveston water system and to strengthen and modernize the Galveston fire department.
He was brought in as a negotiator by the City of Galveston in 1907 to resolve labor disputes on the Galveston docks as everyone in the city trusted Father Kirwin to be fair.
He founded the Home Protection League in 1909 to eliminate saloons from residential areas.
In 1911 he was made Vicar General of the Galveston diocese, while also serving as President of Saint Mary’s Seminary where he taught moral theology, scripture, Latin, Spanish, and catechetics.
During the Pershing Expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916-1917, Father Kirwin served as a chaplain with the Fourth United States Infantry, while continuing his ongoing service as a chaplain with the Texas National Guard. With the entry of America into World War I, General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force to France, requested that Father Kirwin serve as chaplain on his staff. Father Kirwin was unable to take up these duties due to the death of Bishop Gallagher of Galveston. Father Kirwin was appointed to serve as administrator of the diocese until the appointment of Bishop C.E. Byrne in 1918.
Though he was re-appointed by the new bishop as vicar-general, rector of the Cathedral and President of the Seminary, Father Kirwin somehow, did the man ever sleep?, founded a speaker’s bureau in support of the war effort, and headed the Red Cross in Galveston.
After the War he fought against the growing influence of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1922 Pope Pius XI bestowed upon him the well-earned title of Monsignor, and Notre Dame in 1923 awarded him an honorary doctorate of laws. He died of a sudden heart attack on January 24, 1926, death obviously having to be sudden for Father Kirwin, or he would have eluded the Grim Reaper in his usual whirlwind of activity. All Galveston mourned at his death, with his funeral services lasting four days. The Texas National Guard escorted his coffin to the train station to take Father Kirwin’s body back to Circleville where his mother requested that he be buried. No doubt his heart remained in his beloved Galveston.